Creative Education Ecosystem Develops in ‘Silicon Bayou’

Published June 22, 2012

Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ education system was defined by corruption, dropouts, and illiteracy.

Then Katrina leveled the city. In the storm’s aftermath, a flow of federal, state, and private dollars coupled with political backing to upend the city and state’s education system has strengthened student achievement and created a platform for entrepreneurial innovation.

Now sometimes dubbed the Silicon Bayou, the city is becoming a hub for charter schools, ed-tech start-ups, and a young, energized workforce.

New Orleans has always been flush with creative people, said Beth Heaton Seling, 4.0 Schools’s chief operating officer, but only after Katrina has that creativity channeled into education.

“People didn’t do education—they were tech or coders or comedians or photographers—but we were sitting in an entrepreneurial community,” she said.

Rising from the Ashes
In the years leading up to Katrina, federal investigations led to the indictment of 24 public school employees for fraud and corruption. More than $70 million in federal funding went missing and 40 percent of the city’s adult population read at an elementary level. 

“The school system before Katrina was truly abysmal,” said Jed Horne, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has extensively covered New Orleans. “There were valedictorians who couldn’t pass the GED.”

Many students attended school in condemned buildings. Katrina left 16 of the city’s 126 public schools functional.

“Because so many schools were destroyed physically, FEMA has thrown $2 billion at New Orleans to rebuild the old schoolhouses,” Horne said.

The city was also awarded federal Investing and Innovation Funds (i3) and reapplies for them each year.

“The schools here were so bad that the people who typically opposed charter schools or any other type of reform had lost all credibility,” said Kevin Kane, president of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. “When Katrina came along, I think people realized this was something we had to do.”

Organizations that have risen from the ashes of disaster include 4.0 Schools, a nonprofit that aims to connect teachers, schools, and entrepreneurs.

“New Orleans has really become a place that’s really willing to try new things,” said Cambria Martinelli, a 4.0 Schools founding associate. “The city just has an entrepreneurial spirit to it. Every person who has lived here has become some kind of entrepreneur to pick themselves back up after such a tragedy.”

Charters have seeded New Orleans’ academic transformation, providing flexible public schools open to experiments. The state took over most of the city’s schools after Katrina, converting many to charters and making the district open enrollment, Horne said. 

“Unlike most cities where charters have had to fight tooth and nail for every piece of ground, here they had to restart the entire school system,” Kane said. Approximately three-quarters of New Orleans students attend a charter.

The local teachers union was also nearly wiped out with the storm, which has limited bureaucratic dissonance, Kane said. 

“It can be very difficult for a local school board and district to move this quickly,” said Neerav Kingsland, chief strategy officer at New Schools New Orleans.

NSNO, like 4.0 Schools, has helped shape New Orleans’ new innovative ed-tech culture. The organization’s mission includes attracting and preparing talented teachers and launching and generating funds and other support for open-enrollment, high-quality charter schools.

Bipartisan legislation has been crucial to growth, Kingsland said.

“There’s not a lot that Republicans and Democrats agree on right now, but…thoughtful growth of charter schools might be one,” Kingsland said.

The city has fostered ed-tech innovation through annual technology competitions and organizations that support educator inventors. 

“This is what happens when you hand power back to educators and parents and let them run schools,” Kingsland said. “You start with a flux of talented people attracted to this environment because they want to be empowered, they want autonomy…These are the folks that go out to lead and start companies that give scaling support to charter companies.”

The most prominent of these is Kickboard, a software company founded by former New Orleans charter school teacher Jen Medbery. As she taught, Medbery says she felt the traditional grade book limited how schools analyze student performance.  She couldn’t capture, share, or analyze student growth on specific skills or habits and character traits.

Her problem led to inventing Kickboard, which aims to promote a school culture aimed at individual improvement by allowing teachers to track student progress on these multiple measures in real time.

“My fellow teachers and I used to describe our classrooms as ‘islands,'” Medbery said. “We spent too much time finding and organizing information in meetings instead of turning data into a plan of action. I created Kickboard to provide that platform and connect teachers.”

Nearly 70 schools in 14 states and Washington DC now use the software.

An influx of young, energized Teach for America educators post-Katrina, when New Orleans became a popular placement spot, have helped infuse the city with new ideas and energy. TFA places top college graduates into struggling schools. It’s harder to get into TFA than Harvard University. 

“Teach for America continues to bring people who have a desire to rebuild,” Seling said.

Many TFA teachers are developing and launching business ideas. The city has also attracted freelance educators because it offers outlets and markets for their ideas, Horne said.

At the same time, the in the future New Orleans will have to figure how to handle teacher burnout, Horne said, as many TFA graduates work “80 hours a week” to move their students ahead.

Incubating Talent, Tech Skills
Kingsland described 4.0 Schools as an “incubator” for facilitating inventive problem-solving by educators. 

“We’re really getting to collaborate with partners here to think about how we can equip educators to have more entrepreneurial skills that the tech and entire community here in New Orleans have,” Martinelli said. “We’re really seeing two communities in New Orleans and being able to build a bridge between them.”

Both the schools and education innovators in New Orleans are crucial to improving local schools.

“The schools have driven the first five years of reform, but I think that the next wave of innovation is going to be led by people who work in those schools,” Kingsland said. “If the schools themselves aren’t functioning, innovation is kind of beside the point.”

Image by Alysha Jordan.